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Shin or forehead and does it matter?


Painting of David slaying Goliath with the giant's sword by Guillaume Courtois (1628-1679) Wikipedia

Painting of David slaying Goliath with the giant’s sword by Guillaume Courtois (1628-1679) Wikipedia

First of all let me state categorically it doesn’t matter, but the discussion provides a unique twist on a favorite Bible story.

In the English language we have many words that have more than one meaning take “fly” as an example. It can refer to an insect or “flying” through the air. “Bark” can refer to the outer layer of a tree, or the sound of a dog.

In these cases, context means everything.

In the Hebrew we can have the same thing happening. Take the story of the epic battle between David and Goliath.

In the account found in 1 Samuel 17, we read that the Israeli army was faced off against the Philistines. The Philistines had a giant named Goliath. Standing over 9′ tall, each morning he would come out in full armor and parade in front of the Israelis, shouting for one of them to take him on in one-on-one battle.

His challenge was all about fear and intimidation and it was working. No one was brave enough to challenge the Philistine champion.

David, who ended up at the battlefield because he was bringing food for his brothers, saw Goliath and decided to take on the giant with a sling.

David selected five stones, and if historical records on slings are any indication, David’s rocks were the size of baseballs.

Using his sling, David hurled a rock at Goliath burying it in his forehead (1 Samuel 17:49). The giant fell to the ground where David took Goliath’s sword and cut off the giant’s head.

But did David actually hit Goliath in the forehead?

The reason is the Hebrew word commonly translated forehead (mesah) is also used in this passage to describe the shin area. According to Bible school professor Randy McCracken the rendering referring to the shin guard is the feminine form of the word (misha) and it is an obscure usage.

We see the word in play as the author describes some of Goliath’s armor:

He also had bronze greaves (misha) on his legs and a bronze javelin slung between his shoulders. (1 Samuel 17:6 NASV)

Greaves or misha describes the guards used to protect a soldier’s lower leg. However, because of the knee-joint, the greaves could not cover the full area — the knee and area slightly below was left uncovered to allow for movement.

Now in every other instance that “mesah” is used in the Old Testament, context shows it is referring to the forehead of a person (such as Ezekiel 3:7; Ezekiel 9:4), so they translated the word as forehead in 1 Samuel.

But in this instance, could the word “mesah” instead be referring to the shin area.

Considering the clear usage of the word to describe the greaves, the context may suggest that it did. This implies that when David threw the rock it actually hit Goliath’s knee instead of his forehead.

McCracken believes it does and he isn’t alone. Famous British Jewish theologian, Jonathan Magonet in his book Biblical Lives came to the same conclusion. And though others agree, it is certainly a minority opinion.

Is there any evidence to suggest this is what happened?

Maybe.

The sling was a powerful weapon for a skilled man. Properly used a stone would have been moving well in excess of a 100 miles an hour. A ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Force, Eitan Hirsch, estimated if David was within 35 meters of Goliath, based on modern tests the rock was traveling at 34 meters per second or nearly 130 miles an hour — the equivalent power of some hand guns.

Slingers were also extremely accurate and stories were told of them taking down birds in flight.

So if you were struck in the forehead with a baseball-sized stone traveling at that velocity which way would you fall?

Image shows Goliath being hit with a baseball size rock and falling backwards.

Image shows Goliath being hit with a baseball size rock and falling backwards.

Most would instinctively think that Goliath fell backwards and that is how many paintings such as the one on the right portray what happened.

However, what does the Bible say?

And David put his hand into his bag and took from it a stone and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead. And the stone sank into his forehead, so that he fell on his face to the ground. (1 Samuel 17:49 NASV)

The passage says that Goliath fell forward — on his face. Now it’s possible that Goliath was moving towards David and his momentum caused him to fall face down instead of backward after he was hit. But still a baseball-sized rock traveling at those speeds would have rocketed Goliath’s head backwards.

An image of the Philistine helmet which typically covered the forehead

An image of the Philistine helmet which typically covered the forehead

This is where we run into a second problem. The Bible says the stone embedded in Goliath’s forehead. Images of Philistine soldiers (right) show a helmet completely covering the forehead.

Rabbi Magonet points out that the helmet often extended down to  cover the nose. He asks why would David even aim at this highly protected area, as the passage is clear, Goliath was wearing a helmet.

Some suspect by the description Goliath was actually wearing Greek armor which offered even more head protection.

So for the rock to embed in the forehead it needed to first break through the helmet.

Certainly, with the weight of the rock and the speed it was traveling that is possible and it’s also possible the helmet may not have been properly put on.

But if we translate the word “mesah” as shin instead of forehead, a different picture emerges.

If David hit Goliath in the knee area, where there was no protection, it would not only have taken the feet out from beneath the giant causing Goliath to fall forward, but also obliterated his knee and shattered bone preventing him from being able to stand up.

It would have embedded there perhaps caught between the greave and the leg.

In that state and with Goliath burdened down by his heavy armor, David was able to quickly dispatch the Philistine giant.

Now we can’t be sure how the incident actually played out and in one sense it doesn’t really matter. Whether David hit Goliath in the forehead or shin, God was raising him up to be one of the greatest kings in Israel’s history.

Sources:

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3 Comments

  1. mccrackenrandy says

    Hi Dean, thanks for referencing my post. I enjoyed your article and I totally agree that whether David hit Goliath in the knee or the forehead, the important point is that God enabled him to defeat the giant! God bless,
    Randy McCracken

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    • Hi Randy thanks for your comment. I actually first came across this notion of the shin from another blog, but after a bit of research I found your article best explained what was happening in this passage, so I was glad to cite it. You had a very informative article. It shows that sometimes we need to take a closer look at these passages to find out what was really happening. God Bless Dean

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  2. The Scriptures are perfect in all that they say in their original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. When we translate from those languages into English, we occasionally get it wrong. Because we are dealing with the Holy Word of God, we want to get it as close to right as our knowledge of the language will allow. I’m glad to see you present this article based on the Scriptures, the underlying languages, and the facts of ancient history, rather than do what some scholars do and deny its historical accuracy. I can clearly see you’re not trying to do that.

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